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Enchanting Moments

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
05/06/2008 -  - and 9, 11, 14, 17, 20, 22, 24 May
Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Russell Braun (Pelléas), Isabel Bayrakdarian (Mélisande), Pavlo Hunka (Golaud), Richard Wiegold (Arkel), Barbara Dever (Geneviève), Alain Coulombe (A Physician)
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Jan Latham-Koenig (Conductor)
Nicholas Muni (Director), Dany Lyne (set and Costume Designer), Thomas C. Hase (lighting Designer), John Frautschy (Assistant Lighting Designer)

The Canadian Opera Company’s revival (from 2000) of Pelléas et Mélisande is a solid success - with moments of pure enchantment - in spite of wayward directorial notions.

Nicholas Muni presents us with a violent back story in a program note: the father of Golaud was possibly murdered by his younger brother who then married Geneviève, his brother’s widow. Pelléas is their son and might well be plotting against his older half-brother. Thus Golaud is portrayed as always ill at ease right from the opening scene where, while pursuing a wild boar, he toys with the idea of driving his sword through his throat. In a later scene Mélisande casually and ominously brandishes the sword as if contemplating what damage she could do with it. The audience (but not Golaud) are allowed to see that Pelléas and Mélisande are lovers at the end of the scene in which Golaud hoists Yniold on his shoulder so that the child can spy on them. We are led to suspect that Pelléas could be the father of Mélisande’s child.

Let’s go over some of the most positive aspects of the evening (and very positive they are). Russell Braun’s Pelléas is among the superlative characterizations I have ever experienced, both vocally and dramatically. It is his most frequently performed role and he portrays a sweet, diffident young man. He is a real baritone (not a baryton martin - almost a tenor - which the role is said to require) but he has high notes that climb into a dreamy stratosphere when required.

Isabel Bayrakdarian has a wonderful sound for Mélisande. Hers is a soprano voice with mezzo colouring that gives life to the character’s anomic utterances. One thinks of Mélisande as wraith-like, but in this production she always wears bright red and has raggedy red hair. The resulting feral look is in keeping with the director’s idea that the royal house is rife with menace.

I have seen at least one production of this opera in which the Golaud was so dominant that it raised the question of retitling the work. Such is not the case with Pavlo Hunka, although his voice and presence are just right for the wary, watchful character.

Richard Wiegold is craggy-voiced Arkel and Barbara Dever’s Geneviève makes me wish she had more to sing. Erin Fisher has exactly the right piping voice for Yniold. Alain Coulombe made the most of the physician’s few lines; he is understudy for Arkel and would no doubt be fine in that role.

Richard Bradshaw, the COC’s late artistic director, named this as his favourite opera and was slated to conduct it. Jan Latham-Koenig demonstrates an experienced hand, bringing forward many of the score’s Tristanesque sounds.

The two-level set positions the Allemonde royal house above a dark swampy-looking lower level. Pelléas seems confined to this inferior level but does not seem put out about it. Effective lighting supports the mysterious atmosphere of the piece, especially during the interludes when we see floating orbs of different coloured lights as the scene changes. One of these turns out to be a glowing kite being flown by Yniold. Another enchanting moment comes with the shadowy vision of the departing ship. There is a lot of very slow stage movment, also very appropriate to the piece. The costumes are faintly Balinese or some such, although Arkel looks the proper medieval European aged king.

One effective staging idea emphasizes the background suffering amongst the inhabitants of Allemonde: an off-stage herd of sheep is mentioned by Yniold and we see a slaughtered sheep being torn apart and eaten raw by a desperate group. Other staging ideas are confounding, most particularly re Mélisande’s hair. She mentions that it is longer than her arm when it clearly is not, nor does it come near to getting wet in the fountain where she drops the wedding ring. In the tower scene Pelléas rhapsodizes about caressing her hair, but he is several meters below her and nowhere close to touching the hair. Is this supposed to be a poetic idea that helps emphasize something or other? Other actions explicitly called for - such as Golaud’s angry assault on Mélisande - are clearly played out. And why does Yniold have one non-functioning arm? Golaud promises him a quiver with arrows which is a downright mean gift to a child who is handicapped this way.

These and most directorial innovations seem to be solutions to non-problems. This work is usually described as mysterious, puzzling, ambiguous, complex, etc. and it is all that, but this is no reason to add another layer of puzzlement. Directors want to avoid being termed mere traffic directors, but this production works best when the traffic is being skillfully directed. Pelléas et Mélisande is arguably the first minimalist opera and to try to impose an extra level of plot runs counter to the Maeterlinck/Debussy gesamkunstwerk. It’s not a whodunnit or a who’s-about-to-do-it. One’s understanding of a production should not require program notes.

Overall, the directorial innovations do not destroy one’s enjoyment of this often-enchanting production, but do add an irksome element of fussiness.

Michael Johnson



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